Don’t Forget Massey Energy’s Long History of Violations

Federal investigators’ preliminary report is out on the April coal mine explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners. Was it something of a natural disaster—a fluke or bad luck—or was it a man-made one that could and should have been prevented?

The Wall Street Journal gets off to a weak start with this lede:

A series of safety and equipment failures in a Massey Energy Co. mine likely allowed a small methane explosion to trigger a second, massive blast that killed 29 men in April, federal safety officials said Wednesday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration offered its most detailed description to date of the possible causes of the accident at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Among its findings: A water-spray system that helps suppress explosive coal dust wasn’t functioning properly, and sparks from worn carbide bits on a piece of equipment known as a longwall shearer likely ignited gases that had reached explosive levels.

A close reader could infer from “Safety failures” that those are the company’s fault, but he shouldn’t have to.

Compare that to The New York Times, which spells it out clearly in its lede:

The West Virginia coal mine disaster last year that killed 29 miners was a preventable accident caused by a relatively small flare-up of methane gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion, federal mine safety officials said Wednesday.

In a preliminary report, officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration said their investigation found that Massey Energy, operator of the Upper Big Branch mine, had repeatedly violated federal rules governing ventilation and control of coal dust to reduce the risk of explosion.

That’s much tougher, and from what I can tell, more accurate.

The AP, after a vivid anecdotal lede, writes this:

Records obtained from owner Massey Energy Co. and evidence found deep inside the mine points to poor maintenance as the cause of the blast, MSHA said. The agency expects to finish its probe in two to three months, but said it wanted to issue preliminary findings.

But “poor maintenance” is something of a euphemism if you know what none of the three stories report:

… 29 men died violent deaths in large part because Don Blankenship ran what amounted to an outlaw coal mine, racking up more than 500 safety violations and nearly $1 million in fines last year alone.

That’s from Jeff Goodell’s devastating Rolling Stone piece on Massey Energy and its then-CEO Blankenship (who resigned a week after the piece came out), which details the history of ignoring safety rules with deadly consequences. If you missed it in November, go back and read it now.

And here’s an investigative report from American University that examined Massey’s safety record:

The Workshop analyzed government data that it requested from the mine safety agency, and found that no company other than Massey was responsible for more miner deaths from 2000 to 2009, even though Massey was only the sixth-largest coal producer in the United States last year, according to government statistics…

Massey also amassed thousands more safety violations than any other coal company between 2000 and 2009.

Here’s Rolling Stone on a 2006 explosion that killed two workers at a Massey subsidiary:

Massey offered Delorice a small settlement, but she took the company to court, believing that management should be forced to pay for its negligence. During the proceedings, her lawyer unearthed two revealing memos. The first indicated that Blankenship knew personally that there had been a problem with a conveyor belt nearly a week before the fire broke out. In the second, dated three months before the disaster, Blankenship appeared to order the superintendents of Massey’s mines to ignore safety concerns in favor of increasing production. “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal,” Blankenship told them. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.”

If you’re going to report a news story like this, reference Massey’s history and make clear that these “errors” and “failures” were part of a pattern and not a one-off instance.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,